In ‘S/Z’, his wonderful, word by word dissection of a Balzac short story, Barthes notes that ‘in the text, only the reader speaks.’
There’s a fascinating point about the process of reading to be drawn out of that. When we read a book, he’s saying, we read it in our voice, hearing the words in our head as if it’s us speaking.
That’s an index of a broader readerly solipsism. Any book only has meaning for us inasmuch as it taps into experiences we’ve already had. Once it steps beyond our emotional experiences – whether actual or fantasised – it leaves us with nothing to engage with. Without engagement, we’re unlikely to keep reading.
We tend to regard books as externalised artefacts, bringing intellectual and emotional novelty into our lives. In fact, in many ways they can only ever present our selves back to ourselves, connecting with us through our own voices and experiences that we’ve already had. A book isn’t a window; it’s a mirror.
But perhaps that’s not quite true. Books do introduce novelty into our lives – new information, new understanding, new ways of seeing. Our ability to grasp novelty may be limited, but nonetheless it is real. The voice may be ours, but the words we are reading aren’t. A book is neither mirror nor window, but a complex set of tensions between the two.
That’s a complexity that M. John Harrison picks up on, in his magnificent short story ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ (latterly re-titled / re-edited as ‘A Young Man’s Journey to London’). It’s the concluding story of his 70s Viriconium sequence, and it very literally enacts the window / mirror tension.
A small group of characters discover a portal to the ‘magical’ world of Viriconium in the toilet of a café in the provincial English town of Huddersfield. It’s a mirror that they can climb through, and so they do.
They find themselves in a seedy and blasted semi-urban landscape. They scratch together a living for a while, before being forced to return to our world by a combination of sickness and lassitude.
The world they find themselves is authentically magical; but it’s also authentic to their situation in our world. Taking themselves through the portal isn’t a magical solution – rather, it does little more than give them a different context within which to confront the same issues that they have to deal with here.
For M. John Harrison, there’s no such thing as escape; only reframing. And perhaps that’s the best way to understand where novelty in fiction comes from. Fiction helps the self see itself in a new light by giving it a means of reframing itself. Simultaneously mirror and window, it creates new worlds for us to step into by forcing us back on what’s already there.
Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you – literally.